It takes a while to settle into the the rhythms, the language and languid, lurid Old South melodramatics of “Mudbound,” a Sundance darling turned Netflix “event.”
For the better part of an hour, it’s fair to scratch your head over the murky visuals, mumbled Mississippi Delta accents and, as the title promises, “mud.”
An introductory burial scene in a torrential downpour plays and is treated as a flashback, but is in fact the fictive present. It’s the rest of the story, most of it anyways, that is flashback.
Relationships between the parallel stories, two families literally bound by mud, are straight-acketed into the soap operatic tropes of the “racial tensions drama” of this film of the Hillary Jordan novel. It’s handsome enough, but no more cinematic than director Dee Rees’ very fine blues singer TV biopic “Bessie.”
But Rees makes us smell the mud, the blood, the sweat and poverty in this depiction of the Depression Era South. She lets the racism announce itself, rarely underlining the implied violence that forces the intolerable upon the powerless.
And a very fine cast, many of its members gifted not just with a performance but with Jordan’s poetic narration of memory, bring this world of a not-at-all-distant past to life
Foremost among those narrators is Laura (Carey Mulligan), a “31 year-old virgin” when she meets her future husband (Jason Clarke). “My world was small, and he was my rescue from a life on the margins,” she says.
Henry is a man of ambition and business, forced back into cotton farming, but who carries himself with the confidence of that over-used phrase “white privilege.” Whatever he was in Memphis, where they met, he isn’t that when he takes wife and children back to a 200 acre farm in the rural county where he grew up. But he doesn’t hesitate to instinctively lord it over the poor tenants, the Jackson family. They’re “colored,” after all.
Florence (singer/actress Mary J. Blige) and Hap (Rob Morgan) struggle to feed their kids, keep their heads above water as tenants and rely on their faith (Hap is a preacher/farmer) to weather the racism that governs everything they do in their lives.
Hap is needed to help move the McAllans in? “Yessuh.” Florence is summoned when the McAllan girls get whooping cough? There is no saying no, though Henry has the manners to at least say he’ll pay. And when Laura wants Florence to continue helping around the house, that can’t be turned down either.
Henry’s younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, quite good) isn’t yet lost to accepting his place in the Jim Crow order of things, even though their monstrously racist old man (Jonathan Banks, hateful as all get-out) does his best to instill that in him.
When Jamie and Florence and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) go off to fight in World War II, it’s not just history that teaches us things will change when they get back. Generations of movies about young men tempered by fire, bonded by shared combat and forced to start the process of moving beyond racism dictate that.
And that’s where the ugliness turns serious and “Mudbound” rises above genre.
Rees, who co-wrote the script, struggles with a fluid timeline that does not match the novel, allows too many over-familiar scenes and situations onto the screen and inexplicably (Is this explained in the novel?) lets Blige wear sunglasses in most of her scenes.
The players have a hard time making an impression much beyond archetypes — the murderous racist, the saintly black farm family, the “liberal” and poetic younger brother, the shiftless white hired help (a distracting minor character in the film) and his suffering to the breaking-point family.
Rees avoids most “trouble on the farm” tropes that date back to Renoir’s “The Southerner,”the trials of getting a crop in (we never see ripe cotton), but not the shocking ugliness of Klan culture in the not-so-Old South. Oddly, the black director on set shortchanges the black half of the story, not giving those characters enough chances to make an impression beyond the most basic.
But there’s power even in the over-familiar, and the movie’s harrowing third act, with men home from war unwilling to accept the way things have always been, alternately sings and stings. Hedlund and Mitchell, playing men scarred by war (Ronsel was a tanker with Patton, Jamie a B-25 bomber pilot), share the best scenes in “Mudbound” — drunken, “you’re alright by me” confessions of their combat experience and the great wrongs still in place in the county they’ve returned to.
“Mudbound” is not a great film, not polished enough to earn its “Oscar contender” hype. But it is a worthwhile one. It doesn’t touch us the way the sentimental “Places in the Heart” did, but doesn’t flinch (much) from showing the Bad Old Days at their very worst, which more sentimental films on this subject invariably sanitize.
And the fact that it’s on Netflix means you can absorb its two hours and 15 minutes at your leisure, rewinding it to unravel the plot’s lapses and the timeline’s clumsiness.
MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Garret Hedlund, Jonathan Banks
Credits: Directed by Dee Rees, script by Virgil Williams and Dee Rees, based on the Hillary Jordan novel. An Armory/Netflix release.
Running time: 2:14